Did Uber really deserve to be banned in London?

After the landmark announcement that the ride-sharing app will not have its licence renewed, we examine the reasons behind Transport for London's decision

Niamh McIntyre
Friday 22 September 2017 16:44 BST
Imagine if pretty much anyone was allowed to drive a car to the airport and pick up disoriented tourists, charging whatever they could get away with
Imagine if pretty much anyone was allowed to drive a car to the airport and pick up disoriented tourists, charging whatever they could get away with

Transport for London has announced it will not renew ride-sharing app Uber’s license because it has identified a “lack of corporate responsibility” in the company.

The landmark decision is the latest in a series of blows to the Silicon Valley company, coming just months after its CEO was forced to resign, along with several other senior executives, because of scandal around corporate culture.

But did the company deserve to have its licence revoked?

TfL’s statement highlighted four major areas of concern: the company’s approach to reporting criminal offences, the obtaining of medical certificates, its compliance with Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks on employees, and its attempt to flout regulatory laws with controversial Greyball software.

It is likely that the decision was also influenced by a number of other corollary concerns: revelations about workplace culture, and its failure to guarantee its workers certain rights.

Sexual assault

Uber has repeatedly come under fire for its handling of allegations of sexual assault by its drivers against passengers.

In August, Metropolitan Police Inspector Neil Billany wrote to TfL about his concern that the company was failing to properly investigate allegations of assault made against its drivers.

He revealed the company had continued to employ a driver after he was accused of sexual assault. According to Inspector Billany, the same driver went on to assault another female passenger before he was removed.

Freedom of Information data obtained by The Sun last year showed that the Metropolitan Police investigated 32 drivers for rape or sexual assault of a passenger between May 2015 and May 2016.

Uber has faced serious questions about its handling of sexual assault in other parts of its global operations, most notably . A top executive was fired after it was reported he had obtained the medical records of a rape victim, in a case which temporarily led to Uber being banned in India.

Workers’ rights

Uber has always maintained its drivers are not directly employed by the company; rather, they are self-employed contractors who are connected to drivers through a platform.

Last year, a landmark employment tribunal ruling said its drivers were employees, opening Uber up to claims of thousands of its drivers for holiday pay, sick pay, pensions, and the minimum wage.

However, the firm- which was valued at $62.5 billion last year - has vowed to fight the ruling in order to prevent drivers receiving these entitlements.

In April, a committee of MPs accused the company of exploiting workers with contracts which were designed to be unintelligible.

Labour MP Frank Field, a member of the committee, said at the time of: “These companies parade the ‘flexibility’ their model offers to drivers but it seems the only real flexibility is enjoyed by the companies themselves.”

“They are not paying sick leave or contributing to pensions. Yet it seems likely that their employment practices will lead more people to need taxpayers to pick up these costs.”

DBS checks and medical records

All drivers registered with TfL, including Uber drivers must by law undergo a Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service

This month, TfL informed Uber that background checks on thousands of its drivers were invalid. The drivers were given 28 days to reapply for the procedure, or risk losing their licence.

In the US, Uber’s background checks have been found to be inadequate in a number of states. Last year, the company settled for $10m after district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco sued over lax checks on employees and passenger safety.

In a separate controversy over the vetting of its employees, The Sun revealed that Uber drivers were able to obtain falsified medical certificates which gave them the all-clear for service.

Controversial personal data usage

The TfL statement also expresses concern about “its approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London”.

In March it emerged that Uber had been secretly using a tool called Greyball to deceive law enforcement officials in a number of US cities where the company flouted state regulations.

Greyball used personal data of individuals it believed were connected to local government and ensured that its drivers would not pick them up if they requested a ride on the app.

It was reportedly used in Portland, Oregon, Philadelphia, Boston, and Las Vegas, as well as France, Australia, China, South Korea and Italy.

The tech firm has also been criticised for other software developed using personal data. The FBI is currently investigating a programme it allegedly used to use to ascertain whether the company interfered with rival ride-sharing app Lyft.

That software reportedly allowed Uber to collect data on the location of Lyft drivers by posing as Lyft users, in order to fill apparent gaps in Lyft’s coverage in real time.

In August, Uber was forced to kill heavily criticised plans to track its users’ with geolocation data after their ride had ended.

Workplace culture

The company has also been rocked by a series of revelations about harassment and sexism in the upper echelons of the company.

In February, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, wrote a 3,000 word blog post about the toxic culture in the Silicon Valley office.

Ms Fowler wrote in the blog: “Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn't transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism.”

The furore that followed led to two external investigations which uncovered 215 separate complaints about sexual harassment and other workplace practises, and saw 20 employees fired.

A report authored by former Attorney General Eric Holder called for changes to senior leadership, improvements to the employee complaints process, and changes in the “cultural values” of the firm.

The former CEO Travis Kalanick resigned shortly after the publication of the independent investigation.

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